John Henry Twachtman

(1853-1902)

In 1889, after a decade and a half spent mostly abroad, John Twachtman longed for a place to call his own. Having decided that he would not live in his native Cincinnati, which he had referred to as an “old fogied place where only one kind of art is considered good,” he arrived on the East Coast in the spring or summer of 1888. Boarding that summer and the next fall in Branchville, in southwestern Connecticut, near the home of his old friend, J. Alden Weir, he roamed the hills, creating pastels of the open farmland that ranged over a varied terrain of undulating hills.
In May of the following year, Twachtman received a letter confirming that he had been hired as a teacher by the Art Students League (Letter of John Twachtman to Miss Ketcham, May 7, 1889, Art Students League Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., microfilm roll NN5925, frame 466). Now assured of an income, he began to look for a countryside retreat of his own where he could live, paint, and raise his family. At some point that year, he came upon the landscape near Greenwich, Connecticut. Even closer to New York City than Branchville, Greenwich was served by a direct commuter train to the city, allowing Twachtman to reach his job easily while residing in the sort of quiet and rural landscape that would inspire his art. From all reports, Twachtman was instantly smitten by the Greenwich countryside. After surveying the land briefly, he set out to determine the availability of a small farmhouse by the side of the road and the acreage on which it stood (John Douglass Hale, The Life and Creative Development of John H. Twachtman., 2 vols., Ph.D. dissertation, Ohio State University, 1957, l: 69-70). At first he lived in the home as a tenant, but over time he acquired the house and three acres of land in 1890. The next December, he bought an additional 13.4 acres, resulting in the approximately seventeen acres that became his property as well as the primary subject matter of his art for the rest of his career.
In Greenwich, Twachtman never tired of the possibilities offered by his home and property, and he painted them in all seasons of the year. The countryside lacked obvious drama, but its variety was endless, its rises and dips creating a myriad of perspectives in which pictorial concerns of space, form, and color could be explored. Therefore, although he returned over and over to the same subjects, each of his resulting images was utterly distinctive. Simply by shifting his viewpoint by several feet, the arrangement that spread out before him offered a new inspiration. However, nature was not merely a starting point for Twachtman to explore compositional issues. Driven by a deep respect for nature, he challenged himself to paint only what he actually observed. At the same time, he recorded his scenes without relying on age-old perspectival rules of landscape, so that he often captured how various distances, as seen by the eye at once, appear to merge together in certain atmospheric conditions. Indeed, he loved gray days for the possibilities they offered for fresh seeing.
Twachtman’s Greenwich approach is exemplified in "Tulip Tree, Greenwich". His subject is a hillside marked at rhythmic intervals by Tulip Trees, also known as Yellow Poplars. These tall, straight hardwood trees are noted for their four-lobed tulip-shaped leaves and their greenish-yellow blossoms. Our eye is directed to a midpoint along the trunk of an especially tall tree, which suggests that the vantage point is from a steeply rising hillside opposite that of the hill before us. A shaded area in the left foreground suggests the presence of a tree on this rise that casts a shadow. While the tall tree stands prominently before us, it does little to establish a foreground space as the distance rises up steeply behind leaving little distinction between the near and far landscape. Reflected sunlight illuminates the rolling masses of the terrain without establishing a clear sense of the topography. A cluster of leaves on the near tree blend with green foliage of a bush or ground cover beside or below it. The forms of trees on the hillside softly merge into the atmosphere, while the near tree is more strongly silhouetted against the sky, further serving to bring the distance forward. Applying dabs of earth tones of brown, green, and whitish-yellow, Twachtman layered his paint to create a sense of allover atmosphere in which the landscape is animated by wind and shifting light. The result is a rich study of relationships of forms and space in nature as affected by atmospheric conditions and as perceived with a gaze untainted by traditional landscape formulas.
While demonstrating Twachtman’s modern sensibility in its innovative spatial construction, Tulip Tree, Greenwich also exemplifies Twachtman’s love of capturing the inherent natural beauty of his sites. The comments of his student Eliot Clark could readily apply to the work: Twachtman’s images reveal “his very happy faculty of arrangement without seeming effort, the effect of which was to heighten and strengthen the salient characteristics of a subject and to give it a significance singular to itself”
(Eliot Clark, “The Art of John Twachtman,” International Studio 72 [January 1921]: lxxxvii); “the spectator shares with the painter the exhilaration of the moment, the feeling that each new motive is a new discovery. One senses the animation of the artistic adventure, the delight in the search for the beautiful in nature” (Eliot Clark, John Twachtman [Privately printed, 1924]: 45).